The Handsome, Pun-Loving Missionary Who Teased Popes

Columbanus died 1,400 years ago this month, having re-evangelized Western Europe. /

The handsome and hot-headed Columbanus was one of Western Europe's most successful evangelists ever.

According to Columbanus's first biographer, writing less than three decades after his subject's death, “Columbanus's fine figure, his splendid color, and his noble manliness made him beloved by all.” And therein lay the problem: “He aroused … the lust of lascivious maidens, especially of those whose fine figure and superficial beauty are wont to enkindle mad desires in the minds of wretched men.”

As a young man, he was afraid he was on the brink of giving in to such vain “lusts of the world,” so he sought the guidance of a local female hermit.

“Away, O youth, away!” she advised. “Flee from corruption, into which, as you know, many have fallen.” Columbanus left, shaken, to pack his things to take up the monastic life. When he told his mother he was leaving, she became so distraught, she blocked the doorway. But Columbanus was undeterred, “leaping over both threshold and mother.”

Thus began his peripatetic life.

Columbanus continued his studies with Comgall of Bangor, whose monastery was famous for its asceticism. Not only did Columbanus thrive there, but he codified such asceticism into two rules for monasteries—one for individual monks, the other for communities. These rules could be extremely harsh: merely desiring to hit someone meant 40 days on bread and water. Actually hitting someone (and drawing blood) meant penance for three years. Even speaking ill of the rules meant exile from the community.

Yet Columbanus had another side, which some of his sermons and letters suggest. A letter to Pope Boniface IV is loaded with puns about ...

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